Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages

Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages

Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages

Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages

Synopsis

Around the year 1215, female mystics and their sacramental devotion were among orthodoxy's most sophisticated weapons in the fight against heresy. Holy women's claims to be in direct communication with God placed them in positions of unprecedented influence. Yet by the end of the Middle Ages female mystics were frequently mistrusted, derided, and in danger of their lives. The witch hunts were just around the corner. While studies of sanctity and heresy tend to be undertaken separately, Proving Woman brings these two avenues of inquiry together by associating the downward trajectory of holy women with medieval society's progressive reliance on the inquisitional procedure. Inquisition was soon used for resolving most questions of proof. It was employed for distinguishing saints and heretics; it underwrote the new emphasis on confession in both sacramental and judicial spheres; and it heralded the reintroduction of torture as a mechanism for extracting proof through confession. As women were progressively subjected to this screening, they became ensnared in the interlocking web of proofs. No aspect of female spirituality remained untouched. Since inquisition determined the need for tangible proofs, it even may have fostered the kind of excruciating illnesses and extraordinary bodily changes associated with female spirituality. In turn, the physical suffering of holy women became tacit support for all kinds of earthly suffering, even validating temporal mechanisms of justice in their most aggressive forms. The widespread adoption of inquisitional mechanisms for assessing female spirituality eventuated in a growing confusion between the saintly and heretical and the ultimate criminalization of female religious expression.

Excerpt

This book addresses the trajectory of female spirituality over the course of the High and later Middle Ages. From a certain perspective, it is a familiar story to which all students of the medieval and early modern periods can supply the ending: during this period, female spirituality (“always already” suspect) is progressively perceived as a substantial threat to the church and society at large. This gradual criminalization of female spirituality parallels the progressive efforts to constrain and even persecute women, an impetus most dramatically illustrated in the witch-hunts of the early modern period. Therefore this book is not really about what happens to female spirituality, but about why it happens. It attempts to isolate a constellation of factors that help to explain this process.

At the very center of this problem are the various convulsions medieval society was undergoing around the time of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). As papal antidote to contemporary confusion, Lateran iv is undoubtedly the clearest statement we have of the problems confronting the medieval church in this period as viewed through the lens of the higher clergy. Although the problems are legion, there are several strands that are of particular importance to this study: the threat of heresy; the regulation of sanctity; the new emphasis on the sacraments, particularly confession and the eucharist; and the introduction of the inquisitional procedure. From the perspective of the church hierarchy's disciplinary measures, these three strands are strategically interwoven in the fight against heresy: heretical antisacramentalism is countered by a due reverence for the sacraments, which becomes one of the benchmarks of orthodoxy; saints are newly perceived as key players in the struggle against heresy—hence an emphasis on the sacraments becomes intrinsic to contemporary profiles of sanctity; the inquisitional procedure will soon be adopted as the instrument for assessing both sanctity and heresy; and the sacrament of confession, made mandatory for the first time at the council, emerges as a new proof of orthodoxy, obliquely corresponding to the emphasis placed on confession in inquisitional procedure. All of these considerations are implicated in the way in which female spirituality is portrayed in this period.

Lateran iv also both signals and abets a more abstract change that affected individuals in all walks of life: a growing concern with what constitutes proof. the outlawing of the ordeal and the introduction of the inquisitional process are certainly the most explicit conciliar articulations . . .

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